The Presidents Conference goes to Madrid

Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruíz Gallardon, left, Malcolm Hoenlein and Robert Sugarman at Madrid's Intercontinental Hotel, Feb. 12, 2014. (Fuenta Latina)

Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruíz Gallardon, left, Malcolm Hoenlein and Robert Sugarman at Madrid’s Intercontinental Hotel, Feb. 12, 2014. (Fuenta Latina)

For a few months last year, I had a mission: To get a senior EU official to admit that Europe’s reluctance to blacklist Hezbollah as a terrorist organization was motivated by its desire to avoid spoiling relations with Lebanon. I failed, and was forced to rely on experts to describe this public secret.

So I was surprised to hear not one but several Spanish officials admit as much last week in talks with 40 American Jewish leaders visiting Madrid as part of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations annual mission.

Such openness was only one of many courtesies Spanish officials extended to their visitors, who were treated like high-level diplomats, complete with round-the-clock police protection and motorcade escorts wherever they travelled.

For four-and-a-half days, cabinet ministers and senior officials made pilgrimages to the delegation’s hotel. In between, there were excursions for meetings with even more senior officials, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and King Juan Carlos I. Not only did his majesty pose for photos with each visitor, but he also broke with the script to exchange pleasantries with them.

The COP mission is actually an Israel mission, in which the leaders annually travel to the Jewish state and one other country. Last year, the group visited Paris and met with President Francois Hollande, but there were fewer meetings with other senior officials and less openness than in Spain, organizers and participants told me.

So what were the parties hoping to gain? For the Jewish delegation — led by conference chairman Robert Sugarman and Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman — that was easy enough to figure out, as they were quite open about their agenda: Enlist Spain to further isolate Iran and its allies; oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign against Israel; and facilitate cooperation with the Jewish state, perhaps within wider, cross-Mediterranean frameworks.

The trip came at a fortunate moment for the conference. Spain is running for election to the U.N. Security Council this year, and if it’s elected — which seems like a real possibility — fresh contacts in Madrid could come in handy. The photo-ops were welcome bonuses. Hoenlein already has a whole collection. Over dinner one night, he passed around an iPad with footage of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI giving him a decoration last year. When I asked what they chatted about, he told me “Stuff” and flashed a mysterious smile.

The Spanish hosts were more difficult to read. One clue to their objectives may be the fact that nearly every Spanish speaker began their address with a victory lap, celebrating recently adopted legislation for naturalizing descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain 500 years ago.

The ruling party in December submitted far-reaching legislation on the issue, and the delegation was the first major Jewish group to visit Spain since. Clearly, this was an opportunity for Spanish officials to maximize the PR windfall.

Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon promised that implementation of the law would not be dependent on the government’s good will. This was the first time such detailed assurances were made in public, but it didn’t stop Hoenlein from seeking more. He praised Spain for confronting its past, but also asked that it confront present-day discrimination that, he said, is fueling BDS.

The topic of Israel dominated discussions, including the chat with the king. Israeli Ambassador Alon Bar joined the delegation for entire days. Interest in Israeli innovation and scientific know-how as vehicles to advance the struggling Spanish economy have risen, Bar said, and the volume of negative articles on Israel in Spanish publications has dropped by 80 percent in the last two years. Israel may also have been a factor in the naturalization bill. The law’s purpose, Spanish Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Gonzalo de Benito Secades told me, is to bring Sephardic Jews closer to Spain. “If it is well appreciated by Israel, as we hope,” he said, “then we will be even happier.”

The hope, I learned, is unfounded. Israel, which is trying to attract and retain Diaspora Jews, has no interest in having its citizens take up second nationalities in Europe, Bar told me. Or as he put it: “While Israel has by no means any issue with the bill, it does not serve to promote any Israeli interest and can therefore not be regarded as a gesture toward Israel.”

Whether the trip will achieve the objectives of the parties remains to be seen. For now, the only clear winners were the security agents who escorted the group. While we chewed on kosher sandwiches and listened to a lecture on the Inquisition, they were dining on wine and steak and enjoying a stunning view of Toledo.

NEXT STORY